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Here's to getting the best teachers in classrooms

Deep in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill (SB 359) is section 18A-4-7a, entitled, "Employment, promotion and transfer of professional personnel; seniority."

Even though it doesn't begin until page 126 of the 179-page bill, that section will be among the most contentious in the upcoming debate of the education reform package this legislative session.

That provision attempts to unwind the complicated and controversial teacher hiring practices in the public school system.

Supporters of the change - including Tomblin, the state Board of Education and reform-minded lawmakers - believe the current system relies too much on seniority.

They argue the teacher with the most years of service within a county almost always fills the vacancy, even if other applicants are more qualified.

The rub, they say, is a provision in the current law requiring written reasons if the most senior teacher isn't hired. That triggers a grievance procedure that most school administrators just don't want to go through.

An independent audit of our public schools last year reinforces those concerns.

"The rules, in practice, severely limit a principal's ability to recommend for hiring the most qualified and best person for a position, if that person is a new employee to the system," the audit found.

The proposed change says seniority, as well as a number of other factors, must be considered, but the county board shall fill positions "on the basis of the applicant with the highest qualifications."

Additionally, the bill calls for the county board to give consideration to recommendations made by the school principal and the school faculty senate.

Backers of the change believe this will free up school systems to put the best teacher in the classroom.

The state's two teacher unions - the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia Federation of Teachers - strongly disagree. They believe allowing boards to make more subjective hiring decisions will lead to nepotism.

WV-AFT President Judy Hale calls it the "friends and family" hiring plan.

Hale is an education veteran who has seen her share of hiring abuses over the years. The bad old days of school board nepotism are why Hale and others fought hard to put specific hiring practices in state code.

Her concerns are understandable.

But let's give principals and school boards some credit. They, too, want what's best for the children, and have been hamstrung for years in their attempts to fill positions with the most qualified individuals.

Additionally, in today's litigious climate, it's hard to imagine school systems getting away with hiring family and friends.

No doubt a few will slip through, but there is a significant upside to empowering local boards to act in the best interest of students rather than continuing to cede control to a numbers formula.

The ultimate goal, after all, is to get the best teacher in the classroom.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.



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